Teen sexual assault: Is it really rare? Is it rarely real? Or is it really real?

Recently, I became the doctor of a 17-year-old girl who had been raped.  She told me that right after the rape, she was scared and told her mother.  Her mother immediately took her to the ER.  Following medical guidelines, the ER doctor gave her emergency contraception and treated her empirically for sexually transmitted infections (STIs). My patient told the ER doctor what had happened and even told him that she knew the person. But she refused to tell anyone, including her mother and the police, his name. Like most teenagers who have been victims of sexual assault, my patient chose not to disclose the name of the perpetrator. 

Is it really rare? No. Sexual assault, which is a crime of violence and aggression, includes sexual behaviors ranging from unwanted touching to dating violence to rape.  Sexual assault includes situations in which the victim cannot consent because of intoxication, inability to understand the consequences, or misperceptions because of age or level of cognitive development. Sexual assault is not really rare at all; in fact, it’s all too common. 

The most recent and rigorous studies have found that approximately 27.5% of college women — more than one in four — reported experiences that met the legal criteria for rape. Researchers also found that among female rape victims surveyed, more than half (54%) were under age 18; 32.4% were 12–17; and 21.6% were under age 12 at time of victimization. Studies have also indicated that alcohol is often involved.

Is it rarely real? No. False reports are rare, occurring less than 10 percent of the time, according to the FBI.

Is it really real? Yes. Here is what we know:

Real consequences: Being a victim of sexual assault is one of the most violating experiences a person can experience and increases the risk of problems including STIs, pregnancy, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and suicide.

What we are really seeing is the “tip of the iceberg.”  Most victims choose not to tell anyone about the crime so the true rates of sexual assaults are probably much higher than one in four. In the last 10 years, the National Crime Victimization Survey has found that only 35 percent of rape survivors report the incident to the police.

Why isn’t the problem of teen sexual assault on everyone’s radar? Perhaps because people believe in false myths like those identified by the American Academy of Pediatrics:

  • MYTH: “Oh, it’s not that common.”
  • MYTH: “It only happens to kids from bad homes.”
  • MYTH: “It can’t happen to my child.”

Other reasons teens may not disclose include embarrassment, fear of punishment or fear of being blamed.

How parents can help their children. There are things we need to learn and to discuss with our children:

  • Recognize the myths about dating violence and sexual abuse.
  • Teach our teenagers that respect is the most important part of a relationship.
  • Remind our teens that they can always talk to us no matter what.

What can you do if your teen has been sexually assaulted? Luckily, there are many places to get help; here are just a few:

  • In Delaware County: The Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANE) program provides victims of sexual assault with a specially trained nurse to assess, document and collect evidence, conduct a limited medical exam, and provide them with emotional support. It is available in Crozer-Keystone Health System’s ERs.
  • In Philadelphia: Women Organized Against Rape (WOAR) provides specialized treatment services, prevention education programs, advocacy for the rights of victims of sexual assault, and free counseling for victims of sexual assault. Their 24 hour hotline is 215-985-3333. WOAR also has branches in other counties besides Philadelphia.
  • On campuses: Colleges and universities offer information and services related to sexual assault. For example, Penn State students can go to the Center for Women Students and get campus statistics, myths and facts, prevention tips, and what to do after a sexual assault.

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